Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bible in a Year: Song of Songs

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I’m studying the Song of Solomon, also called the Song of Songs (meaning “the best of all songs”), or in Catholic Bibles, the Canticle of Canticles. In the Christian Old Testament, it is the fifth book of the Wisdom section; in the Protestant OT, it is the last book of this section (with the following book being the prophet Isaiah), while in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles we have two more Wisdom books to go.

In the Jewish Bible, Song of Songs (Sir Hassirim) is in the third, last section of the Bible, the Ketuvim or Writings, but within those writings it is also one of the Hamesh Megillot (Five Scrolls), which are Ecclesiastes, Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Lamentations. Each scroll is read in the synagogue on Sukkot, Purim, Passover, Shavuot and Tisha B’Av, respectively.

(Maybe this is a good place to remind ourselves again of the Old Testament order of books, which although it does not have titled sections it does have certain kinds of writings grouped together. We have the first five books, the Torah or Pentateuch. Then we have books that continue the history of God's people Israel, from the conquest of the promised land to the post-exilic period: Joshua through Esther. Then we have Job through Song of Songs (or Job through Sirach, if you're Catholic or Orthodox); this material includes the Psalms and books called wisdom literature, which connect us to David and Solomon, whose stories were back in Samuel and 1 Kings. Next, we have the prophets, Isaiah through Malachi, which spoke to the time of the post-Solomon kings of Israel and Judah (1 and 2 Kings, and Ezra)---and of course to our own time as well.  So the material after Esther follows a loose chronology from David and Solomon through the Divided Kingdom, the Exile, and the post-exilic period. The last book, Malachi, will transition us into the New Testament writings.)

On the literal level, the Song is a passionate, erotic collection of love songs between a woman and a man. Delight in each other’s bodies, delight in describing and exploring each other’s bodies, delight in loving one another, playfulness in hiding and seeking one another, and heartache when the lovers are separate: all these are emotionally charged and poetically expressed aspects of the poem, rich in sensuous and culinary metaphors.

Here is a brief outline of the book:

The woman, who is dark and beautiful, speaks first, awaiting her lover (1:1-8). They meet (1:9-17), and she longs for his embraces (2:1-7).

She sings of herself and her lover (2:8-17). They play a kind of hide and seek outdoors (3:1-5).

The woman beholds King Solomon and his entourage on the day of his wedding (3:6-11). The man praises the woman’s beauty (4:1-5:2).

The woman has a troubling dream wherein she hears her beloved but he is gone before she can let him in, and she is abused by the city watchmen (5:2-8). Then she praises her beloved and his beauty (5:9-6:3). The  man speaks of his beloved’s beauty as well (6:4-7:9).

The woman sings of her love (7:10-8:4). The book sends with a poem to the beauty of love (8:5-14).

My poor little outline makes the book sound so prosaic! Go and read the book soon! It’s short but beautiful. The poem has wonderful resources of language: smilies, metaphors, double entendres, word plays, different settings, and references to favorite foods and spices of the time (Jewish Study Bible, pp. 1564-1565).

The book is difficult to date, although Solomon is the traditional author. According to the Jewish Study Bible (ibid.), the vocabulary seems to come from different time periods, so perhaps it is a collection of poems that have been edited together.

Like the book of Esther, God is never explicitly mentioned but nevertheless “feels” present. Dianne Bergant, author of The Song of Songs (Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry, The liturgical Press, 2001), points out that that the Hebrew word sir or “song”, means a lyric song rather than religious poem—and yet religious poems can be written in lyric form. So the book could be a secular or a religious poem, depending on your decision whether to interpret the Song as a secular love poem, or a love poem which also has deeper religious meanings.


In my recent book Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament, I write about the Song: “The book is love poetry between two people and explores their feelings of delight in love-making, sensuality, longing, anxiety, and return. The woman in the poems is a strong person in her own right, who knows her mind, her body, and her hearts. She’s by no means a subordinate to her beloved.”

Then I think a bit about the “biblical views” of women.

“In its long, male-dominated story, the Bible has stories of strong an notable women: Hagar, Sarah, Tamar, Puah and Shiphrah, Miriam, Rahab, Jael, Deborah, Naomi and Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, Vashti, Esther, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Lydia, Dorcas (Tabitha), and others. The Bible also reflects some of the culture of the times in its depiction of women’s roles. Men like Jacob, David, and Solomon had multiple wives and concubines. Women could be publicly shamed and abused, as in the book of Hosea (2:10-13) and Ezekiel (16:37-39). Adultery was a capital crime, because it offended the man’s ownership of his wife’s sexuality, but often only the woman was published (John 7:53-8:11). One commentator (1) writes, 'In a patrilineal kinship, a large measure of a man’s honor depended on a woman’s sexual behavior… Men had various strategies for keeping their women honorable, such as insisting that women remained jailed in public, segregating them, and restricting their behavior'…

“We see what we now would call sexism and double standard in other examples in both Testaments. Some of Paul’s language about the church presenting itself as ‘pure and blameless’ before the Lord comes from this old view of the woman’s chastity as belonging to the husband (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-33). Today we think differently about issues of sexuality, marriage, gender, and women’s place in society” (pp. 101-102)….

… except that many people don’t. Controversies continue about “the biblical view” of marriage and sexuality, often with reference to homosexuality, and often with reference to only a few verses of the Bible rather than a much broader picture of the scriptures. While the Bible does teach (or reflect cultural values) certain ideas about women’s roles, we must appreciate the Bible's contrasting witnesses. For instance, we saw how the books of Ezra and Nehemiah discouraged marriage of Jewish men and non-Jewish women—and yet the book of Ruth is a love story of an Israelite man and a Gentile woman, and she became the ancestor of King David! In many biblical passages, men can be said to “own” their wive’s sexuality—and yet the woman of the Song is quite free, very much her own person, an equal to and perhaps even more vivid than her male beloved. Somewhere in his Biblical Literacy book, Rabbi Telushkin comments that the Bible's exclusive or restrictive passage are often contrasted with more inclusive passages elsewhere. The Bible's overall orientation is toward greater rather than lesser inclusion.

The Song of Songs is not only an different kind of book in the Bible because of its joyful eroticism, but also because it gives the woman of the poem are more dynamic role as a sensuous, vital person than we see in some biblical texts. To me, this fact points us to kinds of biblical interpretation that keep us open to new understandings about love, sexuality, and mutuality in our contemporary society. As Karl Barth is said to have taught, we should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.


The idea that a man has say over a woman’s sexuality had a role in ancient cultures, but in our own time, such an idea seems dangerously close to our modern concerns about abuse and also “rape culture.” I'm not saying that the Bible condones rape--quite the opposite--but the Bible does reflect aspects of sexuality and marriage characteristic of the Ancient Near East and the Roman Empire, which are different from our own time.

Even the woman of Song of Songs may have suffered abuse---or perhaps it was her terrible dream. Read chapter 5: The woman does not open her door when her beloved knocks, until he has already left. She went out into the city to find him, unsuccessfully—and then verse 7.

Making their rounds in the city

              the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,

             they took away my mantle,

          those sentinels of the walls (5:7).

The violence is so brief that it is easy to miss. Commentators suggest that the removal of her mantle (or cloak) may imply a sexual assault. Is it all a dream (5:2), or was she actually awakened by her lover’s knocks and then abused when she ventured out alone?

Today, when we're all the more sensitive to issues of gender respect, sexual harassment, and others, some of us recognize the pain of the Song's woman as she risks (or has a nightmare about) the unwanted attention of immoral men.


There are so many beautiful passages in the Song, expressing the delight of being in love, the sorrow of being apart, the questions and insecurities of love, and the joy. Here are just a few passages from the first two chapters.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
   your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
   therefore the maidens love you.

Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
   ah, you are beautiful;
   your eyes are doves.
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
   truly lovely.
Our couch is green;
   the beams of our house are cedar,
   our rafters are pine.

Sustain me with raisins,
   refresh me with apples;
   for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head,
   and that his right hand embraced me!

My beloved is mine and I am his;
   he pastures his flock among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
   and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
   or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

What a wonderful book to be part of the Bible! As Medieval monks realized (see the final paragraph below), one of the great things about the Song is that it offers no instruction or guidance! It doesn't even mention God! But as such it has much to offer as an outpouring of love and joy, pointing us implicitly to the Source of all love.

The traditions that focus on the Song's deeper theological meanings are profound. I’ve also been intrigued by Michael Fishbane’s book, The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2015). He writes, “The Song of Songs has been sung and studied in every generation and every period of Jewish religious life and thought. it is the great songbook of the Jewish soul. The love lyrics of this Song are thus the font of Jewish creativity over the ages" (page xxxv).

Rabbi Akiba, the influential and martyred tanna (sage) who contributed to the Mishnah and halacha (see my earlier post on the Talmud), loved the Song! “All the world is not worth the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel; all the writings (Ketubim) are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of Holies…. Whoever…. [regards] it as a common song, has no part in the world to come” (Bergant, The Song of Songs, p. viii). Other tannaim and also later sages had similar convictions about the book.

Fishbane points out that, over the centuries, four major types of scriptural interpretation developed within Judaism. Broadly speaking, these four types focused respectively on: 1. the plain sense; 2 communal and religion import; 3. personal and spiritual value; and 4. metaphysical secrets” (page xxxv).

He continues by discussing this fourfold typology, which he continues throughout his commentary:

Peshat is the term for the plain sense of the text, including its figurative and poetic language. On this level, of course, the Song is about the woman and her beloved (page xxxvi).

Derash is the term for meaning gained in the context of the whole scripture (Tanakh). All midrashic exegesis of this kind “started with the resumption that the Song’s maiden was a personification of Israel (sometimes as individuals, sometimes as the collectivity), and that her beloved was a personification of God” (pages xxxvi-xxxvii; quotation on xxxvii).

Remez is the esoteric or philosophical reading of the book, which (with the accompanying philosophical assumptions and traditions) interprets the book as an allegory of the mind or soul: for instance, the woman is the intellect or soul, and the man is the ideal of the perfect soul or perfect mind (both of these related to God) (page xxxvii).

Sod is the reading of the Songs for the mystical apprehension, where the Song’s words of longing and love stand for the mysteries of the Divine expressed through love, and through the male and female modalities of God (pages xxxviii-xxxix).

Fishbane notes that peshat, derash, remez, and sod can be rendered in the acronym Pardes which in turn means this fourfold interpretation, about which he discusses and then interprets the whole Song.

Rabbi Telushkin, in his Biblical Literacy, notes that the Hebrew Bible has a “very high regard for human love,” and that the prophets, too, saw the God-Israel relationship in terms of human love (Isa 54:4-8, Jer. 2:1-2, Ezek 16, 23, Hos 1-3. Thus, the allegorical interpretation of the Son within Judaism began early in the canonization process. Telushkin writes, “In rabbinic tradition, the Song narrates the words which God and Israel spoke to each other at the Red Sea, at Sinai, or in the Tent of Meeting. The descriptions of the male lover are understood as allegorical descriptions of God while the descriptions of the female lover are understood as divine praise of Israel. The statements of desire and love are read as expressions of love and intimacy between God and Israel” (358).

Bergant, who expounds on the many literary and exegetical aspects of the Song, notes that early Christians also began to read the book devotionally. They understood the Song as a poem about the relationship between God and the soul, and between Christ and his church. Origin, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Abrose, Theodoret, Cyril of Alexander, are among these early Christians. Medieval Christians who similarly treasured the Song include Gregory of the Great, William of Saint Thierry, Venerable Bede, Bernard of Clarivaux, and also the 16th century Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. These different Christians read the book as a beautiful allegory of spiritual love.

Jean LeClercq, O.S.B., has a book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (third edition, New York: Fordham University Press, 1982). I found it several years ago while browsing a favorite place called The Bookseller, Inc. in Akron, OH. I want to quote him at some length to show how medieval monks loved the Song of Songs. LeClercq writes that the book was the most read, commented on, and loved book of the medieval cloister. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on just the first two chapters (pp. 84)

“As it had for the Fathers, [the method of spiritual] reminiscence on the part of monastic authors of the Middle Ages had a profound effect on their literary composition. The mere fact of hearing certain words, which happen to be similar in sound to certain other words, set up a kind of change reaction of associations which will bring together words that have no more than chance connection, purely external, with one another… Thus, in the Sermons on the Canticles, in connection with these words of the second verse of the Canticle: ‘Thy very name spoken soothes the heart like flow of oil,’ Bernard speaks at length on the perfumes of the bridge when suddenly he pauses to insert a discourse in praise of humility. Had he lost the trend of his sermon? By no means. He realizes that he has gotten away from the Canticle and he does not regret it. He takes up again the verse where he had left off. But now Psalm 75 proclaims ‘that in Israel the name of God is extolled’ and Bernard introduces a discourse on the Synagogue and the Church, devoting an entire sermon to it. In the following sermon, he sings the praises of the name of Jesus, and while on the subject of the individuals of the Old Testament who bore a cognate name, he expounds the prophets. He compares them to the staff which Elisha sends to the son of the Sunamite before coming to raise him from the dead. Coming back to life, the child yawns seven times; whereupon, after a long introduction on the meaning of the allegories of the Old Testament, Bernard gives a sermon on the seven phases of conversion, and this makes him think of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: a new direction which he willingly follows. This brings his mind back, little by little, to the second verse of the Canticle. Now, this series of digressions has taken up six complete sermons.” (pp. 74-75).

The Canticle brings readers into Christ’s presence, “the spiritual union realized through charity” and the love of God (p. 84). “The Canticle is the poem of the pursuit which is the basis for the whole program of monastic life: quaerere Deum, a pursuit which will reach its end only in eternity but which already obtains fulfillment here in an obscure possession; and the latter increases desire which is the form love takes here belfow The Canticle is the dialogue between the bridegroom and the bride who are seeking each other, calling to each other, growing nearer to each other, and who find they are separated just when they believe they are about to be united. St. Gregory had given perfect expression to this alternating intimacy and separation… ‘The bridegroom hides when he is being sought so that, nit finding him, the bride will search for him with renewed ardor; and the bride’s search is prolonged so that the delay will increase her capacity for God, and she will eventually fin a fuller measure what she had been seeking’ "….

“The Canticle of Canticles is a contemplative text: theoricus sermo as St. Bernard would say. It is not pastoral in nature; it does not teach morality, prescribe good works to perform or precepts to observe; nor even exhortations to wisdom. But with its ardent language and its dialogue of praise, it was more attuned than any other book in Sacred Scripture to loving, disinterested contemplation… An anonymous commentator on the Rule of St. Benedict sees the Canticle of Canticles as the complement of the monks’ rule: it is, he says, the rule of love” (pp. 85-86).

I admit that I don't always "feel" God's love as something unconditional and indeed passionate. But traditional readings of the Song do point us to understanding that kind of love!



1. Gale A. Yee, "The Book of Hosea," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 208.

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